What is hard Brexit?

Published: 1st Jun 2017

The EU referendum just gave people the choice to “Leave the European Union” or “Remain a member of the European Union”

But there are lots of ways we could leave the EU.

What is hard Brexit?

Hard Brexit is at one end of the spectrum. It’s about moving further away from the EU and cutting the main formal ties with the EU.

Three of the ties that the Prime Minister talks about ending are the right of freedom of movement between EU countries, so that any citizen of the EU can work and live in any other EU country; the need to pay money to be a member of the EU; and the fact that EU law overrides UK law.

What is soft Brexit?

Soft Brexit is at the other end of the spectrum, where we continue to have close formal ties with the EU.

It might look more like what Norway has, for example. They are in the EU single market which means they pay money, citizens can move between EU countries freely, and they have closer trade links than non-EU countries.

Is there a middle way?

Lots of them. The negotiations are going to go into minute detail about different industries and specific rules. Hard Brexit and soft Brexit are overall approaches, but the details will matter a lot—deals made about specific industries might ultimately affect whether you still have a job.

How will hard Brexit affect the economy?

Generally speaking a hard Brexit means dramatically changing our trading relationship with Europe, and soft Brexit means making smaller changes and still being connected with the club without having full EU membership.

Most economists think that the further away we get from full membership, the worse it will be for the economy. Economists aren’t always right, but the logic of that is fairly simple: shared EU rules make it easy to trade with hundreds of millions of people on our doorstep. If we make it harder, most economists expect it to be bad for the economy.

Hard Brexit is often used to mean the UK leaving the European Union without a new trade agreement in place at all. That’s the furthest away from EU membership.

It would increase the United Kingdom’s control over our own affairs, but would also mean we would have to pay tariffs and might also mean we have different product standards and regulations and other things that make it harder to trade. Most economists think this would be the worst result for our economy.

Other people use hard Brexit to mean that we would leave the European single market but have a different trade agreement with the European Union as a whole—a sort of softer hard Brexit. The EU single market requires ‘four freedoms’: free movement of people, capital, goods, and services, which means anyone from the EU can live in the UK and vice versa. One big politically-important difference of a hard Brexit trade agreement would be the end of freedom of movement.

Would hard Brexit leave us with more control?

In hard Brexit, we would have the final word over what our rules are. For example, we could if we wanted to stop any EU citizens immigrating into the UK, or set completely different product rules about what makes a car safe or what makes a medicine safe from the EU ones we have now.

There are places where experts have argued that could be an advantage, for example when it comes to what scientists are allowed to do with genetic modification.

There are also places where we might want to follow the exact same rules as the EU, so anything that can be sold there can be sold here, and vice versa. We may also agree rules with other countries as part of trade deals with them.

In those cases it could mean accepting rules we have very little control over.

So to know how much more real control we get, we’ll have to look beyond the labels into the detailed results of the negotiations and future trade deals.

That’s not what hard Brexit means!

Fair enough. The labels mean different things to different people.

“To Leavers, a ‘hard Brexit’ means one that will be ‘hard’ for immigrants, and give us ‘hard’ borders; whereas, to Remainers, this means that it will be ‘hard’ for the UK to cope with" according to research by the Britain Thinks consultancy.


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